Jamestown rower breaks record at Blackburn Challenge
Neither Dwyer nor McNett is a stranger to winning on the water. On July 17, racing in a double surfski high-performance kayak, the duo ran the 20-mile course in just under 2 hours and 31 minutes to break the record for surfski doubles. Both men are former New England surfski champions.
“We thought of ourselves as a formidable duo,” Dwyer joked.
In fact, Dwyer and McNett would have set a new surfski record had they not been up against three elite rowers: Boris Markin, an Olympic medalist from the Ukraine; Dorian Wolters, who is on Germany’s national kayak team; and Reid Hyle, who has represented the United States in the International Canoe Federation’s world championship.
Markin, Wolters and Hyle all broke the old course record of 2:32.58, set by Greg Barton, an Olympic gold medalist. They raced in single surfskis, though.
The race is limited to 275 boats. The slower boats start at 7:30 a.m., and the race officials send them off in waves five minutes apart. The high performance kayaks go off at 8:30 a.m.
“There’s never been quite a turnout like this,” said Dwyer. The Blackburn race started 26 years ago.
The race honors Harold Blackburn, a Gloucester fisherman, who survived an 1893 ordeal at sea and rowed a dory through a storm to Newfoundland. Every year, some rowers do the race in a dory as a tribute to Blackburn and another cod fisherman, Thomas Walsh. The two had become separated from the schooner that carried them out to the fishing banks.
Walsh died. Blackburn brought the body back for burial but lost his fingers due to frostbite. He returned to Gloucester and opened a tavern, which is still operating. Blackburn also continued his sea adventures by sailing solo across the Atlantic and setting records.
The race in his honor starts in the Annisquam River, which is really more like a marsh, Dwyer said. After three miles, the course moves into open ocean water.
“Cape Ann is treacherous,” Dwyer said. “It juts out like a fist into the Atlantic.” Rowers usually can expect big waves, but this year the conditions were relatively calm. The water near Cape Ann, according to Dwyer, ranges from “calm to hideous.”
Dwyer trains six days a week to stay in shape for racing. He says the sense of peril is all relative. “To me, dangerous is getting into a car going down the highway at 55 mph and not wearing a seatbelt.”
Dwyer says racing around Beavertail, for example, may require a skillful paddler to keep a highperformance kayak upright in flat water, but it gets easy after time, like learning to ride a bicycle.
“You do improve,” he said. “I am tooting the horn for the sport and trying to clear up misconceptions. This is a tremendous fitness option, it’s fun.”
The surfski is what sea kayaking is supposed to be. Although it hasn’t yet caught on in the United States, the sport is hugely popular in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Women are a growing demographic in surfski racing, and they can choose a more stable surfski model, such as the Epic V8, one that is considered “user friendly.”
“The surfskis are quick upwind and downwind, and they make a standup paddleboard look like they’re standing still,” said Dwyer. He predicts the stand-up paddle- boards, which are all the rage now, will be gathering dust in garages before long.
“They’re tedious. They’re slow.”
According to Dwyer, standup paddleboards are supposed to work a person’s core. “A surfski works your core, too, while going three times as fast.”
Dwyer acknowledges his brand of racing kayak isn’t for everybody. You can’t let go of the paddle, he said, because the boat will tip and you’ll fall out. If you do, you just climb back on.
If his boat should capsize, Dwyer estimates he can climb back on the surfski in less than 19 seconds. Unlike the standard kayak, there’s no danger of the rower being caught in the craft.
“It’s a sit in top with a sealed cockpit, and the water drains out the bottom,” he said.
Dwyer organized the Jamestown Double Beaver race last month. Joe Glickman of New York City won after Markin, the favorite to win the event, made a mistake by failing to go around the green buoy south of Beavertail.
“Three of us told him specifically, ‘Make sure you go around the buoy,’” Dwyer said – or, at least, he laughed, they thought they told him.
Despite the setback, Markin almost overtook the other paddlers. Dwyer expects him to overtake him at the regional competition.
“It’s a point series,” he said. “I’m currently leading, but Boris is going to overtake me. I’m being realistic.”